By: Rob Breton
Recently I published a book called The Penny Politics of Victorian Popular Fiction with Manchester University Press. It’s on the turn towards the politicization of fiction in the 1840s and begins by looking at Newgate Calendars and fiction (mostly Jack Sheppard), productions coming out of Edward Lloyd’s operations (such as Sweeney Todd), and more generally the “cheap” fictions of the decade. The book places this popular writing in the context of Chartism and the political upheavals of the period. Of course, I have a chapter on Reynolds and The Mysteries of London, but it somewhat diverges from the other chapters as Reynolds was explicitly political; instead of demonstrating the way popular fiction incorporated bits and pieces of political content in order to sell copy – because political content was understood to have mass appeal – for this chapter I looked at the way Reynolds turned to popular forms to help sell his political content.
I had written on Reynolds before, but not in the sustained way I was planning for this book. Starting out to write something “big” on Mysteries was a daunting task because I wanted to include both textual and contextual criticism, and it struck me that the textual criticism could go in as many different directions as contextual criticism can go. Close reading a book that refuses to stay put, that is massively overstuffed, and that offers an impossible array of examples of everything it wishes to say presents challenges. Of course, Victorian novelists from Dickens to Stoker wrote “baggy monsters” as well; the encyclopedic aesthetic of nineteenth-century fiction isn’t monopolized by Reynolds or the “fast” periodical publishing of the day. My grandmother’s walls would never accept having a square inch free of something or other hanging out of them. But close reading Mysteries is somewhat of a different exercise than close reading Bleak House or Middlemarch, for example, where we might search for webs of meaning and connections between plotlines or characters, notwithstanding their ideological contradictions. One might do this with Mysteries but added to the task is dealing with the plotlines and characters that don’t connect, that don’t add up to make the point. One might look for contradictions in Reynolds the same way we would look for contradictions in any author. That’s not what I am getting at. Rather, writing on Reynolds presents unique challenges because he is always political but arguably less ideological or politically predictable than his contemporaries.
One might conclude that Mysteries is simply less consistent or coherent, less neat-and-tidy than a Bleak House: the sprawling plots are not necessarily in search of a thematic home. But this would be unsatisfying because the novel is also relentlessly political, a good deal more political than Victorian “middle-class fiction,” where the point often seems that politics must be put aside, and much more explicitly political than most of the other popular fiction of the day. One might expect political fiction to be especially consistent, to have a specific agenda. But Mysteries is both politically fixed and erratic. On the one hand, itassociates every moment in the many lives it depicts to class or “Wealth / Poverty.” On the other hand, intersectional and interclass complications dissolve the seemingly constant conflicts of class antagonism. Radical to its core, it seems just as interested in offering topical and almost granular reformist plans. There are scenes in the novel that read as if they were written by the stuffiest of gentlemen, especially when representing street people. At other times, the point seems to be that grubby street people have morally grubby counterparts in well-to-do homes. Reynolds has a habit of dealing in types and countertypes, both of which seem to explode as the chapters proceed into untypical substories layered against muddling backstories. We get the worthy and unworthy poor, disgusting wealth and noble wealth, a world of extremes that confirms and denies stereotypes at one and the same time. Since the complications are nearly always political or ethnographic, one does not want to ignore the various storylines or choose one as representative, and aggregate meaning can seem elusive, the real mystery.
The effect of writing on such a wildly ambiguous, elastic novel is that you don’t quite know if you have been freed from the trap of representation – where a character becomes representative – or if you are in the thick of it. Is the novel based on binaries – “Wealth / Poverty” – or just the opposite? It is supposed to be the case that melodrama simplifies, giving us only two sides, but Reynolds’s excess, the overdetermination of motivation, the endless explanation of motivation, defy summation. When there are (what seems like) fifty examples of aristocratic vice to examine, and fifty examples of aristocratic graciousness that follow, and all of them take if not unexpected then divergent turns, final words and last analyses seem less than appropriate. Some characters are clear victims of circumstance; others overcome obstacles with pulled-up socks. Some of the servants – Filippo, Marian, and Whittingham – are loyal, decent, good; Lafleur is wicked. Good fallen women trip on the skirts of bad fallen women, and men. We even get good villains in Crankey Jem and Holford. The critic’s attempt at totalization and condensation is always frustrated by the prolonging of the plotline and refusal of the whole. Writing on Reynolds is at the very least a reminder that “distance reading” or computational analysis risks missing everything in its hunger for everything.
Mysteries defies a quick read in more ways than one. Understanding it never seems to come down to the author’s class position or his politics or even the genre that he happens to be exploiting at any given time. The way the novel refuses stock categorization even as it teases just that is precisely what makes it so good to write on. Writing on Reynolds requires a willingness to try every methodology under the sun, a bit like what Reynolds may have been doing himself. It forces or should force the critic to abandon their own overly deterministic assumptions and shortcuts, which is never a bad thing. Writing on Reynolds, that is, is as rewarding as it is challenging.